Thoughts from revisiting The Politics of Moralizing. (Direct quotes are attributed to the authors of the essays).
Examples of the politics of moralizing are common today. We see their use in the many political debate shows on the news channels. This is all ‘good theater’ precisely because, like debates between opposing religions, the format is rarely aimed at achieving consensus.
The shows play on the emotional intensity of human moral commitments, the urge to self-certainty as a form of vanity: “the moralist is driven by self-righteousness and he carefully watches the sins others commit” (Jane Bennett). Moralizing is usually accompanied by an authoritarian certainty, a moralistic overconfidence. It comes from a tendency to take ourselves too seriously, without heed to any opposing views that would complicate our claims. Our moralizing beliefs are durable and persist without critical examination.
Moralizers take pride in giving a moral lesson. But any claim of moral authority requires considerable confidence in one’s judgement. Authoritarian statements of moral laws imply some sort of moral expertise. This is the thought that the political moralizer has some sort of special access to what is right, leading to an emphasis on why their opponents are wrong. But “the role of an intellectual is not to tell others what they must do. By what right would he do so?” (Foucault).
In addition there is a practice of harshly judging and reproaching your opponents. This can take the form of hate ads where the criticism is often ad hominem: the fallacy of attacking the speaker instead of her claims. Ironically enough for all types of political dialogues, “Moralism is animated by a tacitly anti-democratic sentiment: it does not want to talk but rather seeks to abort conversation with its prohibitions and reproaches” (Wendy Brown).
Consider two examples of the politics of moralizing; environmentalism (moral authority) and feminism (reproaching the opponent). “Environmentalists are some of the most effective political moralists in American politics. Their self certainty is based on the belief that nature tells them to behave in particular ways. [Sorting the trash into recyclables], an activity largely unknown until recent years, now is undertaken as a moral responsibility” (Bill Chaloupka).
Ann Curthoys and Wendy Brown comment on the tendency toward harsh judgementalism often associated with feminism, which, like the Christian slave revolts, has taken on a victim mentality and become attached to “the foundationalism of morality as a compensation for powerlessness” (Curthoys). “Feminism seeks to shame and discredit power while at the same time securing the ground of the true and the good” (Brown).
Political theater could go another way, although I doubt the ratings would sustain a long run. The debaters could shift away from an evangelical self certainty and a censorious attitude toward their opponent’s views. Instead they could consider “what must be articulated, cultivated and affirmed” in their own vision. In the example of identity politics, there could be a focus on how to “reinvigorate our sense of identity and the manner in which we relate, compose, craft, and sculpt that identity” (Curthoys).
When you find yourself drawn into political conversations at your next cocktail party you might consider Jane Bennett’s advice: “Season your claims with self-irony and humility, cultivate a tolerance for moral ambiguity, practice normative reticence, build a resistance to the pleasure of purity, mind your own business, forget to wreak vengeance.”